Wasn't planning on joining any reading challenges this year but have decided to make a lone, enthusiastic exception for the French Bingo 2015 Reading Challenge after host Emma of words and peace kindly extended me a personal invitation to play along. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the personal touch. Although Emma's bingo rules allow quite a bit of wiggle room for non-French authors to be read as part of the entertainment, I'm taking her up on her offer to make things "more difficult" for myself by only reading French authors (no interlopers!) to fill in the squares. Please note that while I won't be listing any proposed reads for French Bingo, I remain amenable to suggestions as always. On that note, merci beaucoup to Emma for hosting the event and thanks as well to anybody who's willing to recommend a French book to me at some point.
Le sermon sur la chute de Rome (Actes Sud, 2012)
by Jérôme Ferrari
Jérôme Ferrari's ace 2012 Prix Goncourt winner Le sermon sur la chute de Rome [The Sermon on the Fall of Rome] is such a brisk, invigorating affair from almost every imaginable point of view that it's easy to overlook how distressing the novel is in terms of the moral that can be drawn from its various crisscrossing storylines. Still, with chapter titles borrowed from Augustine's sermons on the fall of Rome and la fin du monde theme evoked in the form of passing references to the French traumas suffered at the hands of "barbarians" at Dien Bien Phu, in the Algerian war, and in the loss of the country's colonies in the African interior not to mention the agony of the German occupation of France during World War II, it's probably no surprise that man's inhumanity to man is one of Ferrari's most pressing concerns. For our purposes, suffice it to say that Matthieu Antonetti and Libero Pintus are longtime friends who, following the philosophical siren call of Leibniz, decide to drop out of grad school and take over a struggling hometown bar in a village in their native Corsica. For a time drink, the ladies, and the good life lead the two to fancy that they've fashioned the Leibnizian slacker version of "le meilleur des mondes possibles" ["the best of all possible worlds"] (99), but as convincingly as these salad days are portrayed do concepts like "la bonté de Dieu" ["the goodness of God"] (Ibid.) really have anything to do with the chimerical nature of human happiness given the back story of Antonetti's family history and the long arm of destiny? I won't touch on any of Ferrari's answers except to say that the narrator provides an optimistic reply to the question by extolling the often unfathomable ways in which "l'amitié est un mystère" ["friendship is a mystery"] (75) and, indeed, can even serve as a form of salvation, and furnishes an altogether more pessimistic reply when advising us that Matthieu and Libero rather than God "étaient les seuls démiurges" ["were the soul demiurges"] of their world and that "le démiurge n'est pas Dieu le créateur" ["the demiurge isn't God the Creator"] but actually man himself. Man rather than God, according to this way of thinking, is the architect of his own destruction, but whether that actually exonerates a god who is oblivious of "sa création" ["his creation"] after having built him up "pierre après pierre" ["stone by stone"] (99) is perhaps a matter for someone else of a more philosophical bent to take up in my stead. For me, the first great book of the new year--reminiscent of Bolaño for the warm, occasionally humorous, very down to earth prose and of both Bolaño and Sebald for the scandalized observation that "les cadavres oubliés" ["the forgotten corpses"] of days gone by "ne sont plus que l'humus fertile du monde nouveau" ["are nothing more than the fertile humus of the new world"] (129).
Thanks to Scott of seraillonand Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog for recommending Le sermon sur la chute de Rome to me last year, the former via a suggestion for my participation in the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge and the latter via this review. Outstanding choice, messieurs.
Le Vice-consul (Gallimard, 2011)
par Marguerite Duras
Le Vice-consul c'est un roman triste, presque tragiquement triste en effet, sur la douleur et la folie, la mémoire et l'oubli. L'intrigue commence, à Calcutta, avec l'histoire d'une mendiante errante de l'Asie du Sud-Est qui, après d'avoir vendu son enfant à une femme bourgeoise, arrive en Inde dix ans plus tard, où elle dort entre les lépreux sur la rive du Gange avec « sa mémoire abolie » (576). « Elle est folle », on lit. « Son sourire ne trompe pas » (653). Comme par hasard, le vice-consul à Lahore est arrivé à Calcutta il y a cinq semaines après avoir devenu fou à Lahore d'où « il a été déplacé à la suite d'incidents qui ont été estimés pénibles par les autorités diplomatiques de Calcutta » (559). Quel genre d'incidents? On ne le sait pas vraiment, mais on dit qu'il « a fait le pire »: « il tirait la nuit sur les jardins de Shalimar où se réfugient les lépreux et les chiens » (591). À partir de ces prémisses, Duras a pu engendrer un livre « anticolonial » dans lequel elle cherche la complicité du lecteur à établir un parallèle entre la mendiante et le vice-consul quant à sa condition de paria. C'est une affaire délicate. En premier lieu, c'est difficile de ressentir de la pitié pour ou le vice-consul ou la mendiante à cause de leurs actions. Néanmoins, Duras plaide la cause de l'isolement comme le lien entre les personnages principaux. Pendant que le vice-consul attend sa prochaine nomination, par exemple, il semble
tomber amoureux de l'ambassadrice Anne-Marie Stretter, une femme dit être
tormentée « par indifférence à la vie » (624). Elle n'est pas
intéressée en le vice-consul, qui pense d'elle que « son ciel, ce sont
les larmes » (636); pas aimé et derangé, il bredouille des choses comme « je sais, je suis une plaie » (633) et il pleure dans la nuit. Bien que Duras soit souvent froide jusqu'à la cruauté avec ses
personnages, son style est, comme d'habitude, fortifiant, urgent. Quand le vice-consul et l'ambassadrice dansent au bal à la réception de l'ambassade, la romancière prend quatre paragraphes pour dire « Alors tout l'Inde blanche les regarde. », « On attend. Ils se taisent. », « On attend. Ils se taisent encore. », et « On attend. Ils se taisent encore. On regarde moins. » (607). La brusquerie de la prose est violente. Ailleurs, l'écrivaine n'hésite pas à poser des questions difficiles. « Mais des lépreux ou des chiens, est-ce tuer que de tuer des lépreux ou des chiens? » On notera que cette question ne reçoit pas une vraie réponse, peut-être parce que Duras aime l'ambiguïté et peut-être parce que ce crime n'importe pas tellement a la société des Blancs de Calcutta. « Les lépreux, de loin, avez-vous remarqué? On les distingue mal du reste, alors... » (591).
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)
Le Vice-consul paraît dans Tome II des Oeuvres complètes de Duras (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2011, 543-657).
Thanks to everybody who participated in this year's Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom or just weighed in with comments on the blog or by e-mail. Although I still have a related post or two to bring your way in January, here's the final official links round-up for the event. Until we chat again, may your 2015 be entirely doom-free for you--with the exception of the Argentinean (& Uruguayan) literary kind of course. ¡Saludos!
Trans-Atlantyk (Yale University Press, 2014)
by Witold Gombrowicz [translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt]
Argentina, 1953 & 1957
In this semi-autobiographical & semi-Rabelaisian romp supposedly composed as a parody of a gawęda--an outmoded form of Polish folk literature having to do with the lives of the nobility and hence, as you might imagine, a "literary fiction" subgenre the likes of which your humble non-aristocratic and non-Polish scribe hadn't even heard of before scrounging around in the stylistic muck for some background dirt on thefake-count Gombrowicz--a near peso-less Polish writer winningly introduced as "the Great Shit Genius Gombrowicz" gets stranded in Buenos Aires in August 1939, wins friends and influences people in the Polish émigré community to such an extent that he's eventually asked to oversee a duel to the death between an Argentinean and a Pole on the Pampas as the parallel "mighty Battle" of WWII takes place "across the water" (34), and etc. & amusing etc. until the novel runs out of pages on page 166. With this Great Shit Summary now behind us, please allow me to devote what remains of my second sentence to the awarding of farcical high marks to Trans-Atlantyk for its shit genius of an anti-captatio benevolentiae ("I'm not inviting anyone to eat these old noodles of mine, the turnips that may even be raw, because they're in a common pewter bowl, Lean, Paltry, even Embarassing withal, cooked in the oil of my Sins, of my Embarrassments, these my heavy grits, Dark, together with this black gruel of mine, oh, you better not put them in your mouth, unless 'tis for my eternal damnation and degradation, on my Life's unending road and up this arduous and wearisome Mountain of mine" ), its shit genius descriptive verve ("Minister Kosiubidzki, Felix, was one of the strangest people I had ever come across in my life. Lean thickish, somewhat fattish, his nose also somewhat Lean Thickish, his eye wishy-washy, his fingers narrow thickish and likewise his leg narrow and thickish or fattish, while his baldness was as if brass-colored, onto which he combed his sparse black rufous hair; he liked to flash his eyeball, and ever so often he flashed it" ), and--last but not least--its memorable dialogue which, even a well-bred shithead like you must admit, while not always of genius caliber, is still undeniably and even emphatically shitty (17-18):
He said: "What kind of a thickhead are you, are you utterly stupid, can't you see there is a war on, at this moment we need Great Men at all cost because without them Devil only knows what will happen, and that is why I, the Minister, am here to enhance our Nation's Greatness, oh, what will I do with you, perchance I must smash you in the kisser..." But he broke off, flashed his eyeball again and said: "Wait now. So you are a Literatus?What on earth have you scribbled, what? Books maybe?" He called: "Podsrotski-boy, Podsrotski-boy, come here..." When the Councilor Podsrotski came running, the minister flashed his eyeball at him, and then softly palavered with him, flashing his Eyeball at me. Hence I just hear them saying: "Shithead!" Then again: "Shithead!" Then the Councilor to the Minister says: "Shithead!" The Minister to the Councilor: "He is surely some kind of a shithead, but his Eye, his Nose look well-bred!" Says the Councilor: "The eye, the nose, not bad, even though he's a shithead, and his brow looks well-bred too!" Says the Minister: "He is a shithead all right, no doubt about it, because you are all shitheads, I too am a shithead, shithead, they too are shitheads, who will know the difference, who knows anything, nobody knows anything, nobody understands anything, shit, shit..."
"The Great Shit Genius Gombrowicz"
For more on the fox in the henhouse of the 20th century Polish-Argentinean novel, Dwight of A Common Reader has posted on Borchardt's "alternative translation" of Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk
"¿Existe la novela argentina?"
by Ricardo Piglia
Let's say, to put it modestly, that [Roberto] Arlt is Jesus Christ. Argentina is Israel, of course, and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem. Arlt is born and lives a rather short life, dying at forty-two if I'm not mistaken... But it wasn't the end of everything, because like Jesus Christ, Arlt had his St. Paul. Arlt's St. Paul, the founder of his church, is Ricardo Piglia. I often ask myself: what would have happened if Piglia, instead of falling in love with Arlt, had fallen in love with Gombrowicz? Why didn't Piglia devote himself to spreading the Gombrowiczian good news...?
(Roberto Bolaño, "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," 97-98 [ellipses added])
Fun w/Argentinean Gombrowicz Criticism, Part I. Long before Roberto Bolaño started riffing on the vagaries of the Argentinean Literature of Doom, fellow big deal novelist/longtime Caravana favorite/alleged St. Paul to Roberto Arlt's Jesus Christ Ricardo Piglia (photo above) took up the question "¿Existe la novela argentina?" ["Is There Such a Thing as the Argentinean Novel?"] to propose a pre-Doom Argentinean long form canon of sorts centered on the works of Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernández, and--apparently unbeknownst to our good friend Bolaño--a wacky Polish party crasher by the name of Witold Gombrowicz. In any event, the seven pillars of wisdom buttressing Piglia's action-packed 1986 essay go something like this. 1) Gombrowicz's 1953 novel Trans-Atlantyk, written in Polish a little more than halfway through the writer's World War II-prompted 24-year stay in Argentina and only later translated into the Spanish of his country of refuge as Transatlántico, is "una de las mejores novelas escritas en este país" ["one of the best novels written in this country"] (35). Beyond its artistic qualities, though, Trans-Atlantyk poses fundamental questions about identity--in particular, "¿Qué pasa cuando uno pertenece a una cultura secundaria? ¿Qué pasa cuando uno escribe en una lengua marginal?" ["What happens when one belongs to a culture of lesser importance? What happens when one writes in a non-mainstream language?"]--to which Gombrowicz would return again in his nonfiction Diary. For Piglia, Argentinean culture thus inadvertently provided the rascally Polish writer who sometimes pretended to be a count with a living laboratory in which to put his art-and-exile hypotheses to the test while living in a South American nation "of lesser importance" in terms of the country's cultural presence on the world stage (36). 2) In terms of Gombrowicz's points of contact with the Argentinean literary tradition, on the other hand, Piglia reminds us that one of the main thrusts of Jorge Luis Borges' 1932 essay "El escritor argentino y la tradición" ["The Argentine Writer and Tradition"] bears a striking similarity to some of the Polish author's concerns as far as Borges' highlighting of the manner in which so-called "literaturas secundarias y marginales" ["minor and non-mainstream literatures"], due to the very fact that they are "desplazadas de las grandes corrientes europeas...de las grandes tradiciones" ["displaced from the great European currents...from the grand traditions"], actually afford what Borges deems the advantage of an "irreverente" ["irreverent"], liberating free hand in the sense that the so-called inferior tradition isn't tethered to the dominant tradition(Ibid., ellipses added). Of course, whether that isn't really always true for iconoclasts by definition is another question for el señor Borges. Still, "para Borges (como para Gombrowicz)" ["for Borges (as for Gombrowicz)"], the essayist adds, "este lugar incierto permite un uso específico de la herencia cultural: los mecanismos de falsificación, la tentación del robo, la traducción como plagio, la mezcla, la combinación de registros, el entrevero de filiaciones. Ésa sería la tradición argentina" ["this no man's land invites a specific use of one's cultural patrimony: in the process of falsification; the invitation to robbery; translation as plagiarism; the blending, the combination of registers; the mash-up of lines of descent. That would be the Argentinean tradition"] (Ibid.). 3) Had I not read the hysterical Borges- and Adolfo Bioy Casares-penned Crónicas de Bustos Domecq [Chronicles of Bustos Domecq] over the summer, I might have found that last bit a little over the top on Piglia's part. However, that slender volume of spurious criticism alone corroborates everything the man's just said! Piglia takes an unexpected critical detour at this point, though, to ask what would have happened if Gombrowicz had written Trans-Atlantyk in Spanish instead of in his native Polish. That is, would the great "Gombro" have been able to pull off a master stylist act in a foreign language like Joseph Conrad did or would the results have been something more like the infamously rough-hewn Spanish of Roberto Arlt, who was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in a German-speaking home courtesy of first generation immigrant parents from Germany and Italy? Piglia understandably supposes the latter, but the explanation he gives hints at the increasingly language-obsessed direction of the remainder of his piece: "Alguien que quiso denigrarlo dijo que Arlt hablaba el lunfardo con acento extranjero. Ésa es una excelente definición del efecto que produce su estilo. Y sirve también para imaginar lo que pudo haber sido el español de Gombrowicz: esa mezcla rara de formas populares y acento eslavo" ["Somebody who wanted to denigrate him said that Arlt spoke lunfardowith a foreign accent. That is an excellent description of the effect that his style produces. And it also helps us imagine what Gombrowicz's Spanish could have been like: that strange mix of colloquialisms and a Slavic accent"] (37). 4) While "Arlt's St. Paul" acknowledges the truth behind the saying that "vivir en otra lengua" ["living in another language"] as practiced by the likes of Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, Nabokov, Beckett and Isak Dinesen among others ''es la experiencia de la novela moderna" ["is the experience of the modern novel"], he emphasizes the point that Polish was a language that Gombrowicz "usaba casi exclusivamente en la escritura, como si fuera un idiolecto, una lengua privada" ["used almost exclusively in writing, as if it were an idiolect, a private language"] in his day to day life in Argentina (Ibid.) Because of that, Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, the first novel which he wrote in exile, "establece un pacto extremo con la lengua polaca" ["establishes an extreme covenant with the Polish language"]. How so? "La novela es casi intraducible, como sucede siempre que un artista está lejos de su lengua y mantiene con ella una relación excesiva donde se mezclan el odio y la nostalgia" ["The novel is almost untranslatable, as always happens when an artist is far removed from his native tongue and maintains an excessive relationship with it in which hate and nostalgia freely mingle"]. That debatable point notwithstanding, Piglia's conclusion to this section was very arresting to this Argentinean Literature of Doomophile: "Digo esto" ["I say this"], he explains, "porque me parece que la extrañeza es la marca de los dos grandes estilos que se han producido en la novela argentina del siglo xx: el de Roberto Arlt y el de Macedonio Fernández. Parecen lenguas exiliadas: suenan como el español de Gombrowicz" ["because it seems to me that strangeness is the hallmark of the two great styles that have been produced in the 20th century Argentinean novel: Roberto Arlt's and Macedonio Fernández's"] (Ibid.). 5) Naturally, all this talk of language and "strangeness" leads Piglia like a ping pong ball back to Borges and his "preciso y claro, casi perfecto" ["precise and clear, almost perfect"] Spanish (Ibid.). In a digression that should be of great interest to translation geeks in general and to Borges geeks in particular, Piglia notes that Borges himself admits to having been greatly indebted to Paul Groussac--another European turned Rio de la Plata expat who, unlike Gombrowicz, abandoned his native tongue and went on to help define the norms of early Argentinean literary style along with people like Leopoldo Lugones. Piglia: "En este sentido hay que decir que nuestro Conrad es Groussac" ["In this sense, we have to say that our Conrad is Groussac"]. And: "Allí busca Borges los origines 'argentinos' de su estilo" ["That's where Borges searches for the 'Argentinean' origins of his style"] (38). To add to the irony of a French-born transplant like Groussac being a forerunner of Borges' in matters of Spanish language style, Piglia suggests that Borges himself might have constructed his style out of a misplaced relationship with his mother tongue. Citing an anecdote which is very amusing but maybe not entirely reliable from a factual standpoint, Piglia shares the story about how the first book Borges supposedly read in his life was a translation of Don Quixote in English. Borges: "Cuando lo leí en el original pensé que era una mala traducción" ["When I read it in the original Spanish, I thought that it was a bad translation"]! Remarking that this anecdote reveals the mind of the prankster behind the great short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Piglia opines that when Borges eventually resolved the dilemma of how to write with the precision of English but the rhythms and tones of the Spanish of his everyday life, he was well on his way to developing one of the best prose styles in the language since Francisco de Quevedo (38). 6) The 1947 "traducción argentina" ["Argentinean translation"] of Gombrowicz's 1937 novel Ferdydurke is the next item on the agenda, and like the preceding one it's a fairly awesome one indeed for a language freak. Piglia begins by saying that the translation was one of the most "extravagantes" ["extravagant"] and "significativas" ["significant"] literary experiences he's aware of (39). Although this sounds like a generous dollop of typical academic rhetorical overkill, anybody who's familiar with Gombrowicz's endearing penchant for referring to himself as "yo, Gombrowicz" ["I, Gombrowicz"] as if he were a character of his own creation won't doubt the "extravagant" part at all! More to the point, in this case the translation endeavor just might have lived up to Piglia's hype inasmuch as the process entailed Gombrowicz creating a first draft of the novel by translating the original Polish into an "inesperado" ["unexpected"] and "casi onírico" ["almost dreamlike"] Spanish, and then arranging to have a team of native Spanish speakers working under the direction of the Cuban Virgilio Piñera hammer out the final version with the assistance of a veritable soccer team of others. Who were these unnamed assistants? "Los parroquianos y los jugadores de ajedrez y de codillo que frecuentaban la confitería Rex y que aportaban sus opiniones lingüísticas cuando las discusiones subían demasiado de tono" ["The regulars and the chess players and the codillo-playing card sharps who frequented the confitería Rex café/pastry shop and who chimed in with their own linguistic opinions whenever the discussions would get too heated"]. Piglia explains that "este equipo no conocía el polaco y los debates se trasladan a menudo al francés, lengua a la Gombrowicz y Piñera se cruzaban cuando el español ya no admitía nuevas torsiones" ["this team didn't know Polish and the debates were often carried over into French, a language where Gombrowicz and Piñera would find common ground when Spanish no longer accommodated new contortions"]. The result? Gombrowicz essentially rewrote Ferdydurke in its entirety for the Argentinean translation, employing a blend of "Cuban," French, Polish, and "Argentinean" to form a new "materia viva" ["living/organic matter"] (Ibid.).Piglia calls this mutation "uno de los textos más singulares de nuestra literatura" ["one of the most singular texts in our literature"], the "our" part stemming from the fact that "antes que nada hay que decir que es una mala traducción en el sentido en que Borges hablaba así de la lengua de Cervantes" ["first of all, it has to be said that it's a bad translation in the same sense in which Borges was talking about Cervantes' language"] and--more to the point, that little piece of mischievousness aside--secondly, that "en la versión argentina de Ferdydurke el español está forzado casi hasta la ruptura, crispado y artificial, parece una lengua futura. Suena en realidad como una combinacion (una cruza) de los estilos de Roberto Arlt y de Macedonio Fernández" ["in the Argentinean version of Ferdydurke, the Spanish is strained almost to the breaking point; contorted and artificial, it seems like a future language. It sounds, in reality, like a combination (a hybrid) of the styles of Roberto Arlt and of Macedonio Fernández"] (40). 7) In the final page or two of the essay, "the founder of [Arlt's] church" prepares to seal the deal literary history-wise with the twin declarations that he believes the Argentinean translation of Ferdydurke to have merged with "las líneas centrales de la novela argentina contemporánea" ["the main currents of the contemporary Argentinean novel"] over time and that Gombrowicz himself probably deserves credit for having been "uno de los primeros" ["one of the first people"] in the country to pave the way for a reading of Arlt and Macedonio that legitimized them rather than disavowed them for their nonconformity. Gombrowicz himself might have disdained such credit; after all, the well known provocateur famously lashed out at snobbish Argentinean literati
with the accusation that "éste es un país donde el canillita que vocea
la revista literaria de la élite refinada tiene más estilo que todos los
redactores de esa misma revista" ["this is a country where the
newspaper and magazine peddlers who shout out the names of the literary
magazines of the elite have more style than all the contributors to that
same rag"]! That being said, Piglia notes that Macedonio was the first person to publish Gombrowicz in Spanish in his magazine Los papeles de Buenos Aires. Did the two ever actually meet? Probably not according to Piglia because "en aquellos años los dos vivían aislados, en pobrísimas piezas de pensión, seguros de su valor pero indecisos sobre el futuro de sus obras" ["in those years, the two lived isolated lives, in the poorest of boarding house rooms, confident about their worth as writers and yet undecided about the posterity of their works"] (40-41). Which is a shame not least because "en más de uno sentido eran, el uno para el otro, el único lector posible" ["in more than one sense, each was the only possible reader for the other"]. In any case, "Arlt, Macedonio, Gombrowicz," writes the man Bolaño somewhat jokingly took to task for failing to spread "the Gombrowiczian good news." "La novela argentina se construye en esos cruces (pero también con otras intrigas). La novela argentina sería una novela polaca: quiero decir una novela polaca traducida a un español futuro, en un café de Buenos Aires, por una banda de conspiradores liderados por un conde apócrifo. Toda verdadera tradición es clandestina y se construye retrospectivamente y tiene la forma de un complot" ["The Argentinean novel is constructed out of those intersections (but also with other intrigues). The Argentinean novel would be a Polish novel: by which I mean a Polish novel translated into a future Spanish, in a Buenos Aires café, by a band of conspirators led by a fake count. All true tradition is clandestine and is constructed retrospectively and has all the attributes of a conspiracy"] (41).
Roberto Bolaño's 2002 speech on "Derivas de la pesada," translated by Natasha Wimmer as "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," appears in The Hudson Review LXIV, no. 1 (2011): 95-101, and can also be found in Bolaño's Between Parentheses. The Arlt/Piglia stuff in particular is classic Bolaño.
Ricardo Piglia's "¿Existe la novela argentina?"--based on his 1982 participation in a conference on the Argentinean novel held at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina--appears on pp. 35-41 of his volume Crítica y ficción (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2000). A more recent edition of the book retitles the essay as "La novela polaca" ["The Polish Novel"] for reasons unknown. Whatever, an inspiring storyteller/critic.